Mozilla is putting the pedal down on its foray into digital ads. In recent weeks, the provider of open-source software has met with a range of ad tech companies in a bid to do more with the audience data and ad space generated by its still popular Firefox browser.
In February and March, Mozilla's content and ads team increased its headcount to approximately 25, including several new engineers and a head of content partnerships. It also held meetings with about 15 companies in the ad tech space. Those engagements, with startups like PubMatic, Rubicon Project, Iponweb and ad server Adzerk, were sparked by a "request for innovation" posted to the Mozilla blog in January.
Sources familiar with Mozilla's plans describe an internal effort to create what's being called "the least creepy ad network in the world." The initiative will begin with minimally targeted, programmatic sales of Firefox's owned and operated inventory, which today consists exclusively of its high-volume "Tiles" native ad placements. Tile ads are only displayed to new users of the Firefox browser as well as those who have cleared their cookies.
One source briefed by Mozilla tells AdExchanger that the format generates in excess of 100 billion views per month globally. Now Mozilla wants to expose all those ad impressions to more demand sources, and layer in new data. That requires integrating with supply and demand partners, which is why it's talking to ad tech companies.
Once it has increased the bid density and CPMs on those placements, Mozilla also hopes to start monetizing third-party inventory. "That amount of inventory can certainly make a market," said one source close to the nonprofit.
Darren Herman, Mozilla's VP of content services, confirmed the company's outreach to ad tech partners.
"Mozilla's mission is to promote openness, innovation and opportunity on the web," Herman said in a statement shared with AdExchanger. "We are meeting with a number of invited advertising technology companies to understand their business better and to see if there is comparability with our user-agency driven vision. We are looking to scale our Content Services initiatives and, with it, evolve the advertising ecosystem to respect our users."
But Mozilla's plans could easily be gummed up by user privacy concerns. The only targeting factors Firefox supports today for its tiles format are default language and country. Most information is stored locally on the browser client, not on Mozilla's own servers (though Mozilla has told partners that the client-server issue may not be a total hindrance, since some ad decisioning is possible within the browser). By and large, Firefox users like it that way.
But Mozilla thinks it can find a privacy-friendly way to activate more interesting data sets – including browser history and search queries that it captures through its lucrative partnership with Yahoo.
In November, the company introduced a browser add-on called Interest Dashboard to let users control how content and ads are presented. The idea was to make the tiles ads more relevant, but Mozilla also hopes it can encourage users to use these interest signals, essentially opting in to more targeted ads.
"In ad tech you're in a situation where you have advertisers and publishers that constantly trade value with you. Users are just as important of a constituent, but they don't necessarily get as much coverage and as much thought as the advertisers and publishers," said another source with knowledge of Mozilla's thinking. "That happens to be the core value proposition of Mozilla. They're the browser that's open, transparent and protects their users."
Mozilla's programmatic game plan is both helped and hindered by a general perception on the part of Firefox users that the browser will take care of them, or that it's an alternative to the relatively more corporate browser makers like Google and Microsoft.
"It's not like every single user is inspecting their policies," this person said. "It's about aligning the value proposition of Mozilla with the interests of their user base and making sure those interests are respected."
But consumers aren't the only constituents Mozilla needs to win over. As it courts publishers, Mozilla hopes to come across as an alternative to the large walled gardens of the Internet – primarily Google and Facebook – that many feel are siphoning ad dollars from smaller publishers and hurting overall competition in digital media. Mozilla will pitch itself as an independent alternative.
Mozilla also thinks it can lead on supply chain issues, setting an ultra-hygienic standard on issues like fraud, malware and other forms of "badvertising."
In addition to the privacy issue, Mozilla faces some additional headwinds as it enacts its digital advertising game plan.
The first is browser market share. Firefox penetration has hovers at about between 15% and 20%, depending on the source you consult. Data compiled by Statcounter puts its penetration at 17%, far behind Google Chrome (49%) and slightly behind Internet Explorer (19%), but still ahead of Apple's Safari (10%). Firefox usage is declining rather than increasing, and if advertisers and agencies demand one thing it's a growth story.
A big driver of its growth stagnation is shifts in Internet usage fueled by the rise of mobile. The volume of Tile ads Firefox displays in mobile is vastly smaller than desktop – although a source says it is growing. Mozilla has an open source mobile OS of its own, and some partnerships with device makers, but penetration is still tiny.
Mozilla may have a greater opportunity to drive adoption of its mobile browser and operating system in Asia, where smartphone adoption is at an earlier stage than in the US and Europe. But Google and Apple, with their dominant share of mobile device operating systems, are also extremely well positioned to capture browser market share.